I feel very fortunate to have parents and guardians who’ve achieved incredible feats in ultra-distance running and mountaineering. I’m lucky to be surrounded by these inspirational people, who are always willing to share their knowledge and have encouraged me to push my own limits, in life, and in running. I’ve come to realise that this isn’t the ‘norm’ for everyone, and now more than ever, I am keen to try and give back and share insights from my own personal experiences in the hope it gives anyone thinking of going the distance the extra confidence boost to do so.
Below are some insights into three ultra-running topics I get quizzed on a lot: How do I train for such distances, what kit do I have and saving the best till last, what food do I eat?! I am by no means a qualified run coach or nutritionist, just a gal who loves running, sharing some friendly advice for anyone who is interested.
How do I train for such distances? – Mind over distance
One question I often get asked is “how do you do that?” but the truth is I don’t really know. Half the attraction with long-distance running is that you don’t know if you can do it until you try! I didn’t enter my first 50-mile race, knowing that I would be able to cross that finish line – I just believed that I could. My interpretation is that there is only so much training you can do in ultra-running. You obviously have a better chance of finishing a 50-mile run if you’re physically fit and your body is used to regular mileage, but so much comes from determination, resilience, and a positive mind-set. I also find the longer the race, the harder it is to train for the distance. Some people might, but I don’t find it beneficial to run a 40-mile training run for a 50-mile race – the miles take their toll on your body, you risk injury, and you lose training time whilst you recover. Personally, I find it more beneficial to increase my weekly mileage and add in some back-to-back runs, for example doing a 20-miler on a Saturday, followed by a half marathon on Sunday. You are still training your mind and body to run whilst fatigued but cause less damage than doing 40 miles in one hit. Again, I’m not a running coach so please don’t take this as gospel, I’m just trying to share what I find works best for me.
Another tip is to run really slow! It might sound obvious, but unless you are a strong cross-terrain runner, you shouldn’t really be thinking about your minute miles on an ultra like you would for a marathon. Although it’s tempting to shoot off at the start line, you will soon feel your energy levels drop if you push too early in the run. Someone once told me an 100 miler only really starts at mile 60, and the sentiment of that couldn’t be truer. You want to run at a pace that feels super comfortable and like you still have fuel in the tank for at least the first half, as you will need it in the second! A good mental strategy is breaking the race up into chunks – nothing will kill your buzz more than standing on a start line thinking ‘I have 50 miles in front of me’ – I like to use the checkpoints to focus my attention, so if I know checkpoint #1 is at mile 8, I only think about the 8 miles in front of me and so on. You’ll soon rack the miles…
In short, build up your weekly mileage and get used to running at a comfortable pace but most importantly, believe in yourself! Everyone starts somewhere and you never know what you’re capable of until you give it go.
What kit do I have? – Comfort is key
I think a common misconception is thinking you need a ton of high-tech, expensive running gear to participate in ultra-distance or mountain running events. One thing which I love about running, is that better kit doesn’t equal better runner! Unlike cycling where investing in a lighter, fancier bike will increase your speed and performance – buying yourself a pair of Alphafly’s isn’t going to turn you into an Eliud Kipchoge of the running world. It took me years to build up the kit I have now, through a combination of hand-me-downs (Thanks Mum!) and buying cheaper starter gear and seeing what worked for me. I now have a few favourites, which I’ll list below, but just be mindful that these might not be right for everyone. Nathan and I both wore £15 decathlon waterproofs for about the first 2 years of racing before we invested in some better ones!
There are a few key things to note when looking for kit that will be on every mandatory race kit list:
Get a waterproof with a hood and taped seams. As mentioned above, even our cheap decathlon jackets had taped seams so this doesn’t have to make it expensive, but you won’t get through the majority of kit checks without all the seams on the inside of your waterproof jacket (and trousers) being taped. Here is an example of what I mean.
OS map & compass. I won’t go into the full story now of when Nathan didn’t bring a hard copy of a full OS map to a kit check, but let’s say he was so close to not being able to take part in the race he’d trained for months for, that he had to start half an hour after all the other competitors – moral of the story is bring a map! Given the nature of ultra-running you cover at lot of ground, which usually means you will off road for at least a portion of the race. This will of vary depending on what route or race you are doing, but some basic navigational skills are a must, there are so many YouTube tutorials on taking compass bearings and map reading to brush up on your knowledge. A lot of long-distance runs also aren’t marked and have a lot fewer competitors than bigger, more commercial races – it doesn’t take long before the pack thins out and the last thing you want to do is take a wrong turn, so navigating or knowing the route is crucial. A great hack here if you’re local to where the race is taking place is to recce the route before-hand. We used to do this before so many races when we were starting out! Recce it in sections (focus more on the middle and end, than the start) and it will give you so much more confidence on the day to enjoy yourself and not worry you’re going off piste!
NB: Some races don’t always require a full OS map, in this instance we take a print-out of the route to avoid carrying extra weight but check with your race organiser if you’re unsure!
Invest in a decent running pack. This is something that I feel is worth the money. I’ve tried various styles and brands over the years, but none have come close to my Salomon vest. Aptly named, they fit like a vest, rather than a backpack – they have water bottle pockets at the front, so many compartments to fit all your mandatory kit (without feeling weighed down) and the key thing for me is that the shoulder straps are wider, so they spread the pressure out across the top of your back and neck. You will soon feel pretty miserable if your kit bag is uncomfortable, no matter how well your running is going!
That sentiment goes for all kit really – if something doesn’t sit quite right, or causes some friction somewhere, you will struggle, so my number one piece of advice would be to make sure you are comfortable in what you’re wearing and that you have tried and tested every piece of kit before a race day!
My current kit list:
– Waterproof jacket: Salomon, Bonatti – women’s waterproof
– Trail / fell trainers: This will vary depending on terrain, but for most off-road Inov8 are my go-to (I’ve had Mudclaw, Roclite & Parkclaw)
– Socks: Running nomads – socks (Nathan’s wonderful socks that I honestly haven’t had a blister in since I started wearing for every run! 😊)
– Shorts: Free people, The way home – shorts
What do I eat? – Donuts
There is lots of scientific data on how many carbs and calories you need to consume when long distance running. I’m sure this is all very insightful for people looking to improve their performance, but I personally find it a bit overwhelming. So as a rule, I eat roughly every hour on any run where I’m out longer than an hour. The goal here is that you don’t allow yourself to become depleted and you top your energy levels up in small, steady bites. Eat too much and you risk digestive issues and don’t eat enough, and you just won’t have the energy to get round the course. After you’ve been running for several hours, you might find you need to increase to every 30 minutes but listen to your body as everyone is different. In a race environment, I use the aid stations on top of this to replenish my supplies (calculate how many miles to the next aid station to decide how much to carry), to hydrate and get a sugar fix. I like to think of races as moving picnics, they always have such variety of food and snacks – I think one of my favourites was warm jam donuts on about mile 30 of the Haworth Hobble – but I’d recommend testing out what works for you food wise on training runs. Some basic things to try are flapjacks, cereal bars, chocolate bars, jellybeans or jelly babies and nuts. I usually take something substantial and savoury for around mealtimes, like a wrap or sandwich as it makes a nice change from sugary snacks and I don’t see why you would skip a meal!
Another good pointer is eating on-the-go – I try and avoid stopping to eat (mainly because I find it hard to get going again) and I like to eat whilst preserving time, for example whilst I’m walking up a hill, rather than running down it. To summarise, eat little and often and test out what works for you before race day.
If you have any questions then feel free to reach out as I’d love to chat or help if I can!